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STAGE REVIEW

A bit of bubbly

Wit, style infuse Huntington's sparkling production of 'Present Laughter'

There is a time to think deeply, and there is a time to laugh lightly. For the present, let us laugh.

It's spring, after all. And the Huntington Theatre Company is doing Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" as it deserves to be done: speedily, stylishly, and with just enough silliness to keep the occasional profound thought from taking on any more weight than it should.

Let's not bother with the plot for long, because it's really just an excuse for the atmosphere: the vanished, polished world of London between the wars, full of dressing gowns and evening gowns, whiskey nightcaps and morning sherries. At the center is Garry Essendine, who might as well be named Noel Coward -- a charming, childish but middle-aged star of the stage who has been acting so long that he hardly knows how to stop, even when he's alone.

Orbiting Garry, like planets around a star, are his not-quite-divorced wife, his long-suffering secretary, a pair of business partners and the predatory woman whom one of them has married and the other adores, a couple of eccentric servants, and a couple of miscellaneous fans and hangers-on. It's clear from the start that all these planets will inevitably collide; the only question is how, and how funny they'll all be as they rush heedlessly toward the crash.

In Nicholas Martin's expertly directed staging, the answer is: very funny indeed. Occasionally the actors fire off Coward's witticisms so rapidly that one gets lost in the mix, but it doesn't much matter -- and far better to play this sort of thing too fast than too slow. Besides, Victor Garber delivers such an effortlessly elegant performance as Garry that he keeps everything spinning merrily without ever letting it spin off into chaos.

Garber's Garry is every bit as self-absorbed and foolish as he needs to be, but he's not just a caricature of the egomaniacal actor. He's ridiculous, yes -- but on some level he knows he's ridiculous, and that makes him endearing. Just watch Garber rushing toward one urgent doorbell after another, but pausing, even in extremis, to check his hair in the mirror. He does it over and over again, more and more implausibly as the crises mount, but instead of getting stale it gets funnier every time.

Martin surrounds his star with a fine cast of comic actors, any one of whom could steal the show if Garber weren't the prince of thieves himself. But the one who comes closest to grand larceny is Brooks Ashmanskas, who takes the relatively peripheral role of Roland Maule, aspiring playwright and secretly obsessive fan, and turns it into a side-splitting masterpiece of comic timing and absurd physical grace.

When Ashmanskas launches a ridiculous speech with a coy simper or leaps across the stage in an ecstasy of creative inspiration, he provokes in us the same upwelling of helpless adoration that Garry apparently inspires in the hapless Mr. Maule. He's not just funny; he's an irresistible comic force.

As Liz Essendine, the almost-ex, Lisa Banes is less exuberant but no less delightful. She's a dry martini to the men's champagne -- not so immediately effervescent, but with a lasting comedic kick. Pamela J. Gray has fewer witty lines as the interloping seductress, but she knows how to work a backless gown, and Sarah Hudnut makes a pleasingly acerbic secretary. Nancy E. Carroll, meanwhile, turns in a deliciously sober-sided portrayal of a Scandinavian housekeeper, devoted to smoking and spiritualism.

Part of what makes the Huntington's production such fun to watch is its quiet but relentless insistence on reminding us that we're watching it -- that this is a play, a bit of artifice, that has little to do with life itself. Alexander Dodge's set piles glamorous excess on top of excess -- crystal chandeliers and sconces, intricate veneers, elaborate murals -- and frames it all with a prominent Art Deco arch, a proscenium within the proscenium that lets Garry stay onstage in every second of his life. In the same way, Mariann Verheyen's costumes feel true to the period but just a little more exaggerated, more theatrical, than the clothes that even these highly theatrical people would actually wear.

In one touching moment, we hear Garber singing and playing the piano with the same light wistfulness that Coward brought to his own songs. Then the play moves on, and we're left wondering if the melancholy was real or just another bit of Garry's act. It's a measure of the Huntington's fidelity to the Coward spirit that, fittingly, the fleeting sadness feels both artificial and true.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

'Related'

Present Laughter

Play by Noel Coward

Directed by: Nicholas Martin. Set, Alexander Dodge. Costumes, Mariann Verheyen. Lights, Rui Rita. Sound, Drew Levy. Presented by: Huntington Theatre Company.

At: Boston University Theatre, through June 17. Tickets, $44- $ 75. 617-266-0800, huntingtontheatre.org

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